University taking action to continue addressing the challenges of coronavirus  

This week, President Barron invited Nicholas P. Jones, executive vice president and provost, to share details around the ongoing work taking place at Penn State in response to the global coronavirus outbreak. 

As the rapidly evolving novel coronavirus outbreak continues to make headlines across the globe, I want to share the many proactive steps Penn State is taking to confront this threat and manage the risks to our community. As a parent of a Penn State student, I understand the concern expressed by parents, students and employees alike — and on behalf of the leadership at Penn State, I want to be open and share facts about what is happening publicly and at Penn State as it relates to COVID-19.

At this time we have no known novel coronavirus cases at Penn State. However, as a University, plans are being made across a number of fronts and we are thinking holistically about how coronavirus may impact both our operations and our lives. Questions such as how we can assist students who are fearful or unable to return home and may be in need of spring break or even summer housing; the viability of moving classes online if in-person courses would no longer be feasible; the preparedness of our campus health centers; and how we approach commencement and other large-scale events are among the many considerations we face.

What began as an unfamiliar virus a few short months ago now has potential worldwide implications, including in areas where our students, faculty members and staff may be located or traveling to, both abroad and increasingly here in the United States.

Data from the outbreak in China suggests that approximately 10% of the cases recorded are in patients under 30 years old, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to reiterate that the immediate risk to the American public is low, particularly among healthy college-age adults. However, much about this virus remains unknown, and as this is a complex and rapidly changing situation, we are keeping the health and safety of our entire community at the forefront of our decision-making. Rest assured that our actions to date and in the future are informed by guidance from the CDC and with our most vulnerable populations in mind.

Out of an abundance of caution, we are focusing on 12 critical priority areas to mitigate future impacts to the University, and I have appointed key University leaders to assemble the proper expertise to plan for and address potential issues for each focus area. These 12 action groups are as follows:

  1. Communications
  1. Campus health preparedness and response
  1. Study abroad and support of international students
  1. General emergency preparedness and response
  1. Community interaction and coordination
  1. Semester/summer course delivery interruption
  1. Commencement
  1. Summer and emergency accommodations 
  1. Enrollment management
  1. General business continuity
  1. Research support 
  1. Athletics, camps and other large events 

In the short term, Penn State has moved quickly to protect the health and safety of our community traveling abroad in areas impacted by this virus. We have canceled all international spring break travel for embedded courses and student organizations, and we have placed China, Italy and South Korea on our restricted list for University-affiliated student travel. This includes canceling all student programs in Italy and South Korea and assisting students with returning home. In addition, we are strongly discouraging faculty and staff travel to these countries, which would be subject to my review and approval.

To help prevent potential exposure in or near our campuses, we have issued guidelines for all Penn State students or employees returning from any country with a CDC Level 2 or Level 3 travel warning, including requiring a 14-day quarantine period for travelers returning from a Level 3 country before they return to campus. Full information about Penn State’s quarantine requirements — which echo CDC guidelines — can be found at, the University’s dedicated website where the latest coronavirus-related news, information, resources and guidance can be found. This includes information for parents and families who are worried about loved ones returning from overseas and how to approach home quarantine and prevent possible spread to other members of the household.

Penn State must and will be vigilant in its response to this global health challenge. University leaders, together with our health and safety experts, will continue to make decisions based on facts and with the well-being of the Penn State community in mind. As this is a complex and constantly evolving situation, I urge all members of our community to bookmark for the most up-to-date information, and to pay attention to Penn State News and Penn State Today for critical updates.

The partnership and vigilance of our entire community is needed at this time to make responsible decisions. Let’s support each other and take a moment to reflect on the actions you can take to keep yourself — and those around you — as safe as possible.

Nicholas P. Jones
Executive Vice President and Provost


Graduate education is a pillar of Penn State

This week, President Barron is turning over his blog to Nick Jones, Penn State’s executive vice president and provost. With the recent announcement of a commitment to a 3 percent increase in stipends for graduate assistants at Penn State, Jones revisits a presentation he gave to the Penn State Board of Trustees in January 2015. In this blog, Provost Jones expands on the significance of studying at a research university and the value of graduate students who are part of Penn State’s teaching, research and outreach enterprise.

With a research expenditure budget of over $800 million for the last fiscal year, Penn State is one of the top 20 research universities in the U.S. I reported this, along with many highlights and successes of research and graduate education at the University, to the Board of Trustees in January 2015. With the news of the commitment to a 3 percent stipend increase, I am pleased to see the progress the University is making as part of its continued support of graduate education. Graduate education is a pillar of Penn State’s research enterprise.

Researchers at Penn State are working to solve serious societal problems, and graduate students are an important part of that innovation and discovery. Training Ph.D. students is a core function of any research university. Top-caliber research universities like Penn State equip graduate students to address complex problems, and those students go on to make important research discoveries, become industry leaders and join the professorate at other research institutions.

When one considers the number of research doctorates conferred each year, Penn State consistently ranks in the top 15 of institutions nationally. According to the most recent release of the Survey of Earned Doctorates by the National Science Foundation (December 2014), Penn State places 12th overall in the number of Ph.D. recipients, 6th in the physical sciences, 9th in education, 13th in engineering, and 15th in both life sciences and social sciences. Beyond simply the number of degrees reported, as just one example, Penn State’s Smeal College of Business Ph.D. program enjoyed a 100 percent placement rate this year, with all 11 Smeal graduates finding employment at research institutions.

Even with these successes, research universities also face serious challenges, including a shortage of research funding that is a threat to the research pipeline. This, combined with increasing costs of doing research, limits the support available to graduate students. Nonetheless, under the leadership of Jean Vasilatos-Younken, dean of the Graduate School and vice provost for graduate education, one of the core goals of the Graduate School’s current strategic plan is to increase graduate student support. We are working to ensure that all graduate assistants receive at least a living wage for the region of the University Park campus where most assistantships are held, and the 3 percent stipend increase is an important step toward meeting that goal. In addition, we also are working to extend multi-year offers of support so that students are confident they will have support for the entire time they are working toward their degree. Achieving these goals will allow Penn State to continue to recruit the very best students to our graduate programs.

Despite these challenges, our graduate programs attract applicants from all over the world. Across all of our Ph.D. programs, admission is offered to only 19 percent of applicants – a very high degree of selectivity. This past spring semester, we had more than 15,000 enrolled graduate students, and currently we have approximately 70 students who have been awarded National Science Foundation Fellowships, which are highly competitive and prestigious at a national level. But graduate education is more than rankings, numbers and statistics. The other part of the equation is ensuring that our graduate programs are of the highest quality—including the courses our graduate students take, the mentoring they receive from faculty, and the research and scholarship opportunities they are afforded. We also are focused on increasing the diversity of our graduate school population, especially with respect to underrepresented students enrolled in Ph.D. programs.

The Graduate School continually assesses its progress by tracking student-centered metrics including time to degree, the percentage of students in each program that finish their degrees, and placements after finishing a degree program. Additionally, the Graduate School is working to formalize learning assessments to measure how well students are meeting learning objectives. But a high-quality graduate education is not solely focused on the disciplinary degree – it also encompasses the overall training vital to solving problems and analyzing situations, which is why Penn State is facilitating interdisciplinary graduate education. Dual-title, concurrent and options within graduate degrees provide considerable value-added scholarship to broaden students’ employment and career opportunities.

Earlier this spring I spoke at the inaugural Graduate Student Awards Luncheon, and I was reminded of the important role graduate students play in teaching and supporting undergraduate students. I presented Charlene Van Buiten, a Ph.D. candidate in food science, and nine other graduate assistants with the Harold F. Martin Graduate Assistant Outstanding Teaching Award. The undergraduate students that nominated Van Buiten for the award said she is a “hard-working instructor who is willing to provide extra help and support.” According to Van Buiten, “I’ve really enjoyed my opportunities to work closely with undergraduates, who continually inspire and challenge me to become a better instructor.”

Given their critical role in advancing the teaching, research and learning enterprise of the University, graduate students are major contributors to our research and education mission. We appreciate their commitment and dedication to the success of the University and to the advancement of society through discovery. President Barron, Dean Vasilatos-Younken and I, and indeed many members of the administration, were all graduate students ourselves once and we fully appreciate this vital role that our graduate students play.

Thanks to President Barron, for providing me the opportunity to highlight this important facet of university life.

Nick Jones
Executive Vice President and Provost

COVID-19 Update from Penn State

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